Commentary Magazine


Mercier and Camier, by Samuel Beckett

Mercier and Gamier.
by Samuel Beckett.
Translated from the Original French by the Author. Grove Press. 123 pp. $6.95.

Mercier and Camier was the first of Samuel Beckett’s novels to be written in French. Completed in 1946, and withheld from publication until 1970, it is also the last of his longer works to have been translated into English. Such a long delay would seem to indicate that Beckett is not overly fond of the work. Had he not been given the Nobel Prize in 1969, in fact, it seems likely that Mercier and Camier would not have been published at all. This reticence on Beckett’s part is somewhat puzzling. For if Mercier and Camier is clearly a transitional work, at once harking back to Murphy and Watt and looking toward to the masterpieces of the early 50’s, it is nevertheless a brilliant work, with its own particular strengths and charms, unduplicated in any of Beckett’s six other novels. Even at his not quite best, Beckett remains Beckett, and reading him is like reading no one else.

Mercier and Camier are two men of indeterminate middle age who decide to leave everything behind them and set off on a journey. Like Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, like Laurel and Hardy, like the other “pseudo couples” in Beckett’s work, they are not so much separate characters as two elements of a tandem reality, and neither one could exist without the other. The purpose of their journey is never stated, nor is their destination ever made clear. “They had consulted together at length, before embarking on this journey, weighing with all the calm at their command what benefits they might hope from it, what ills apprehend, maintaining turn about the dark side and the rosy. The only certitude they gained from these debates was that of not lightly launching out, into the unknown.” Beckett, the master of the comma, manages in these few sentences to cancel out any possibility of a goal. Quite simply, Mercier and Camier agree to meet, they meet (after painful confusion), and set off. That they never really get anywhere, only twice, in fact, cross the town limits, in no way impedes the progress of the book. For the book is not about what Mercier and Camier do; it is about what they are.

Nothing happens. Or, more precisely, what happens is what does not happen. Armed with the vaudeville props of umbrella, sack, and raincoat, the two heroes meander through the town and the surrounding countryside, encountering various objects and personages: they pause frequently and at length in an assortment of bars and public places; they consort with a warm-hearted prostitute named Helen; they kill a policeman; they gradually lose their few possessions and drift apart. These are the outward events, all precisely told, with wit, elegance, and pathos, and interspersed with some beautiful descriptive passages (“The sea is not far, just visible beyond the valleys disappearing eastward, pale plinth as pale as the pale wall of sky”). But the real substance of the book lies in the conversations between Mercier and Camier:

If we have nothing to say, said Camier, let us say nothing.

We have things to say, said Mercier.

Then why can’t we say them? said Camier.

We can’t, said Mercier.

Then let us be silent, said Camier.

But we try, said Mercier.

In a celebrated passage in Talking about Dante, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam wrote: “The Inferno and especially the Purgatorio glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking, the foot and its shape. . . . In Dante philosophy and poetry are forever on the move, forever on their feet. Even standing still is a variety of accumulated motion; making a place for people to stand and talk takes as much trouble as scaling an alp.” Beckett, who is one of the finest readers of Dante, has learned these lessons with utter thoroughness. Almost uncannily, the prose of Mercier and Camier moves along at a walking pace, and after a while one begins to have the distinct impression that somewhere, buried deep within the words, a silent metronome is beating out the rhythms of Mercier and Camier’s perambulations. The pauses, the hiatuses, the sudden shifts of conversation and description do not break this rhythm, but rather take place under its influence (which has already been firmly established), so that their effect is not one of disruption but of counterpoint and fulfillment. A mysterious stillness seems to envelop each sentence in the book, a kind of gravity, or calm, so that between each sentence the reader feels the passing of time, the footsteps that continue to move, even when nothing is said. “Sitting at the bar they discoursed of this and that, brokenly, as was their custom. They spoke, fell silent, listened to each other, stopped listening, each as he fancied or as bidden from within.”

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This notion of time, of course, is directly related to the notion of timing, and it seems no accident that Mercier and Camier immediately precedes Waiting for Godot in Beckett’s oeuvre. In some sense, it can be seen as a warm-up for the play. The music-hall banter, which was perfected in the dramatic works, is already present in the novel:

What will it be? said the barman.

When we need you we’ll tell you, said Camier.

What will it be? said the barman.

The same as before, said Mercier.

You haven’t been served, said the barman.

The same as this gentleman, said Mercier.

The barman looked at Camier’s empty glass.

I forgot what it was, he said.

I too, said Camier.

I never knew, said Mercier.

But whereas Waiting for Godot is sustained by the implicitly dramatic situation of Godot’s absence— an absence that commands the scene more powerfully than any presence— Mercier and Camier progresses in a void. From one moment to the next, it is impossible to foresee what will happen. The action, which is not buoyed by any tension or intrigue, seems to take place against a background of nearly total silence, and whatever is said is said at the very moment there is nothing left to say. Rain dominates the book, from the first paragraph to the last sentence (“And in the dark he could hear better too, he could hear the sounds the long day had kept from him, human murmurs for example and the rain on the water”)— an endless Irish rain, which is accorded the status of a metaphysical idea, and which creates an atmosphere that hovers between boredom and anguish, between bitterness and jocularity. As in the play, tears are shed, but more from a knowledge of the futility of tears than from any need to purge one-self of grief. Likewise, laughter is merely what happens when tears have been spent. All goes on, slowly waning in the hush of time, and unlike Vladimir and Estragon, Mercier and Camier must endure without any hope of redemption.

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The key word in all this is dispossession. Beckett, who begins with little, ends with even less. The movement in each of his works is toward a kind of unburdening, by which he leads us to t.—to a place where aesthetic and moral judgments become inseparable. This is the itinerary of the characters in his books, and it has also been his own progress as a writer. From the lush, convoluted, and jaunty prose of More Pricks than Kicks (1934) to the desolate spareness of The Lost Ones (1970), he has gradually cut closer and closer to the bone. His decision thirty years ago to write in French was undoubtedly the crucial event in this progress. This was an almost inconceivable act. But again, Beckett is not like other writers. Before truly coming into his own, he had to leave behind what came most easily to him, struggle against his own facility as a stylist. Beyond Dickens and Joyce, there is perhaps no English writer of the past hundred years who has equalled Beckett’s early prose for vigor and intelligence; the language of Murphy, for example, is so packed that the whole novel has a density that is usually found only in short lyric poems. By switching to French (a language, as Beckett has remarked, that “has no style”), he willingly began all over again. Mercier and Camier stands at the very beginning of this new life, and it is interesting to note that in this English translation Beckett has cut out nearly a fifth of the original text. Phrases, sentences, entire passages have been discarded, and what we have been given is really an editing job as well as a translation. This tampering, however, is not difficult to understand. Too many echoes, too many ornate and clever flourishes from the past remain, and though a considerable amount of superb material has been lost, Beckett apparently did not think it good enough to keep.

In spite of this, or perhaps because of this, Mercier and Camier comes close to being a flawless work. As with all of Beckett’s self-translations, this verson is not so much a literal translation of the original as a recreation, a “repatriation” of the book into English. However stripped his style in French may be, there is always a little extra something added to the English renderings, some slight twist of diction or nuance, some unexpected word falling at just the right moment, that reminds us that English is nevertheless Beckett’s home.

George, said Camier, five sandwiches, four wrapped and one on the side. You see, he said, turning graciously to Mr. Conaire, I think of everything. For the one I eat here will give me the strength to get back with the four others.

Sophistry, said Mr. Conaire. You set off with your five, wrapped, feel faint, open up, take one out, eat, recuperate, push on with the others.

For all response Camier began to eat.

You’ll spoil him, said Mr. Conaire. Yesterday cakes, today sandwiches, tomorrow crusts, and Thursday stones.

Mustard, said Camier.

There is a crispness to this that outdoes the French. “Sophistry” for “raisonnement du clerc,” “crusts” for “pain sec,” and the assonance with “mustard” in the next sentence give a neatness and economy to the exchange that is even more satisfying than the original. Everything has been pared down to a minimum; not a syllable is out of place.

We move from cakes to stones, and from page to page Beckett builds a world out of almost nothing. Mercier and Camier set out on a journey and do not go anywhere. But at each step of the way, we want to be exactly where they are. How Beckett manages this is something of a mystery. But as in all his work, less is more.

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